The lower windows of the great white house, which stood high and square, opened to a wide flagged terrace, the parapet of which, an old balustrade of stone, was broken in the middle of its course by a flight of stone steps that descended to a wonderful garden. The terrace had the afternoon shade and fairly hung over the prospect that dropped away and circled it — the prospect, beyond the series of gardens, of scattered splendid trees and green glades, an horizon mainly of woods. Nanda Brookenham, one day at the end of July, coming out to find the place unoccupied as yet by other visitors, stood there a while with an air of happy possession. She moved from end to end of the terrace, pausing, gazing about her, taking in with a face that showed the pleasure of a brief independence the combination of delightful things — of old rooms with old decorations that gleamed and gloomed through the high windows, of old gardens that squared themselves in the wide angles of old walls, of wood-walks rustling in the afternoon breeze and stretching away to further reaches of solitude and summer. The scene had an expectant stillness that she was too charmed to desire to break; she watched it, listened to it, followed with her eyes the white butterflies among the flowers below her, then gave a start as the cry of a peacock came to her from an unseen alley. It set her after a minute into less difficult motion; she passed slowly down the steps, wandering further, looking back at the big bright house but pleased again to see no one else appear. If the sun was still high enough she had a pink parasol. She went through the gardens one by one, skirting the high walls that were so like “collections” and thinking how, later on, the nectarines and plums would flush there. She exchanged a friendly greeting with a man at work, passed through an open door and, turning this way and that, finally found herself in the park, at some distance from the house. It was a point she had had to take another rise to reach, a place marked by an old green bench for a larger sweep of the view, which, in the distance where the woods stopped, showed in the most English way in the world the colour-spot of an old red village and the tower of an old grey church. She had sunk down upon the bench almost with a sense of adventure, yet not too fluttered to wonder if it wouldn’t have been happy to bring a book; the charm of which precisely would have been in feeling everything about her too beautiful to let her read.
The sense of adventure grew in her, presently becoming aware of a stir in the thicket below, followed by the coming into sight, on a path that, mounting, passed near her seat, of a wanderer whom, had his particular, his exceptional identity not quickly appeared, it might have disappointed her a trifle to have to recognise as a friend. He saw her immediately, stopped, laughed, waved his hat, then bounded up the slope and, brushing his forehead with his handkerchief, confessing as to a red face, was rejoicingly there before her. Her own ejaculation on first seeing him —“Why, Mr. Van!”— had had an ambiguous sharpness that was rather for herself than for her visitor. She made room for him on the bench, where in a moment he was cooling off and they were both explaining. The great thing was that he had walked from the station to stretch his legs, coming far round, for the lovely hour and the pleasure of it, by a way he had learnt on some previous occasion of being at Mertle.
“You’ve already stayed here then?” Nanda, who had arrived but half an hour before, spoke as if she had lost the chance to give him a new impression.
“I’ve stayed here — yes, but not with Mitchy; with some people or other — who the deuce can they have been? — who had the place for a few months a year or two ago.”
“Don’t you even remember?”
Vanderbank wondered and laughed. “It will come to me. But it’s a charming sign of London relations, isn’t it? — that one CAN come down to people this way and be awfully well ‘done for’ and all that, and then go away and lose the whole thing, quite forget to whom one has been beholden. It’s a queer life.”
Nanda seemed for an instant to wish to say that one might deny the queerness, but she said something else instead. “I suppose a man like you doesn’t quite feel that he IS beholden. It’s awfully good of him — it’s doing a great deal for anybody — that he should come down at all; so that it would add immensely to his burden if anybody had to be remembered for it.”
“I don’t know what you mean by a man ‘like me,’” Vanderbank returned. “I’m not any particular kind of a man.” She had been looking at him, but she looked away on this, and he continued good-humoured and explanatory. “If you mean that I go about such a lot, how do you know it but by the fact that you’re everywhere now yourself? — so that, whatever I am, in short, you’re just as bad.”
“You admit then that you ARE everywhere. I may be just as bad,” the girl went on, “but the point is that I’m not nearly so good. Girls are such natural hacks — they can’t be anything else.”
“And pray what are fellows who are in the beastly grind of fearfully busy offices? There isn’t an old cabhorse in London that’s kept at it, I assure you, as I am. Besides,” the young man added, “if I’m out every night and off somewhere like this for Sunday, can’t you understand, my dear child, the fundamental reason of it?”
Nanda, with her eyes on him again, studied an instant this mystery. “Am I to infer with delight that it’s the sweet hope of meeting ME? It isn’t,” she continued in a moment, “as if there were any necessity for your saying that. What’s the use?” But all impatiently she stopped short.
He was eminently gay even if his companion was not. “Because we’re such jolly old friends that we really needn’t so much as speak at all? Yes, thank goodness — thank goodness.” He had been looking round him, taking in the scene; he had dropped his hat on the ground and, completely at his ease, though still more wishing to show it, had crossed his legs and closely folded his arms. “What a tremendously jolly place! If I can’t for the life of me recall who they were — the other people — I’ve the comfort of being sure their minds are an equal blank. Do they even remember the place they had? ‘We had some fellows down at — where was it, the big white house last November? — and there was one of them, out of the What-do-you-call-it? — YOU know — who might have been a decent enough chap if he hadn’t presumed so on his gifts.’” Vanderbank paused a minute, but his companion said nothing, and he pursued. “It does show, doesn’t it? — the fact that we do meet this way — the tremendous change that has taken place in your life in the last three months. I mean, if I’m everywhere as you said just now, your being just the same.”
“Yes — you see what you’ve done.”
“How, what I’VE done?”
“You plunge into the woods for change, for solitude,” the girl said, “and the first thing you do is to find me waylaying you in the depths of the forest. But I really couldn’t — if you’ll reflect upon it — know you were coming this way.”
He sat there with his position unchanged but with a constant little shake in the foot that hung down, as if everything — and what she now put before him not least — was much too pleasant to be reflected on. “May I smoke a cigarette?”
Nanda waited a little; her friend had taken out his silver case, which was of ample form, and as he extracted a cigarette she put forth her hand. “May I?” She turned the case over with admiration.
Vanderbank demurred. “Do you smoke with Mr. Longdon?”
“Immensely. But what has that to do with it?”
“Everything, everything.” He spoke with a faint ring of impatience. “I want you to do with me exactly as you do with him.”
“Ah that’s soon said!” the girl replied in a peculiar tone. “How do you mean, to ‘do’?”
“Well then to BE. What shall I say?” Vanderbank pleasantly wondered while his foot kept up its motion. “To feel.”
She continued to handle the cigarette-case, without, however, having profited by its contents. “I don’t think that as regards Mr. Longdon and me you know quite so much as you suppose.”
Vanderbank laughed and smoked. “I take for granted he tells me everything.”
“Ah but you scarcely take for granted I do!” She rubbed her cheek an instant with the polished silver and again the next moment turned over the case. “This is the kind of one I should like.”
Her companion glanced down at it. “Why it holds twenty.”
“Well, I want one that holds twenty.”
Vanderbank only threw out his smoke. “I want so to give you something,” he said at last, “that, in my relief at lighting on an object that will do, I will, if you don’t look out, give you either that or a pipe.”
“Do you mean this particular one?”
“I’ve had it for years — but even that one if you like it.”
She kept it — continued to finger it. “And by whom was it given you?”
At this he turned to her smiling. “You think I’ve forgotten that too?”
“Certainly you must have forgotten, to be willing to give it away again.”
“But how do you know it was a present?”
“Such things always are — people don’t buy them for themselves.”
She had now relinquished the object, laying it upon the bench, and Vanderbank took it up. “Its origin’s lost in the night of time — it has no history except that I’ve used it. But I assure you that I do want to give you something. I’ve never given you anything.”
She was silent a little. “The exhibition you’re making,” she seriously sighed at last, “of your inconstancy and superficiality! All the relics of you that I’ve treasured and that I supposed at the time to have meant something!”
“The ‘relics’? Have you a lock of my hair?” Then as her meaning came to him: “Oh little Christmas things? Have you really kept them?”
“Laid away in a drawer of their own — done up in pink paper.”
“I know what you’re coming to,” Vanderbank said. “You’ve given ME things, and you’re trying to convict me of having lost the sweet sense of them. But you can’t do it. Where my heart’s concerned I’m a walking reliquary. Pink paper? I use gold paper — and the finest of all, the gold paper of the mind.” He gave a flip with a fingernail to his cigarette and looked at its quickened fire; after which he pursued very familiarly, but with a kindness that of itself qualified the mere humour of the thing: “Don’t talk, my dear child, as if you didn’t really know me for the best friend you have in the world.” As soon as he had spoken he pulled out his watch, so that if his words had led to something of a pause this movement offered a pretext for breaking it. Nanda asked the hour and, on his replying “Five-fifteen,” remarked that there would now be tea on the terrace with every one gathered at it. “Then shall we go and join them?” her companion demanded.
He had made, however, no other motion, and when after hesitating she said “Yes, with pleasure” it was also without a change of position. “I like this,” she inconsequently added.
“So do I awfully. Tea on the terrace,” Vanderbank went on, “isn’t ‘in’ it. But who’s here?”
“Oh every one. All your set.”
“Mine? Have I still a set — with the universal vagabondism you accuse me of?”
“Well then Mitchy’s — whoever they are.”
“And nobody of yours?”
“Oh yes,” Nanda said, “all mine. He must at least have arrived by this time. My set’s Mr. Longdon,” she explained. “He’s all of it now.”
“Then where in the world am I?”
“Oh you’re an extra. There are always extras.”
“A complete set and one over?” Vanderbank laughed. “Where then’s Tishy?”
Charming and grave, the girl thought a moment. “She’s in Paris with her mother — on their way to Aix-les-Bains.” Then with impatience she continued: “Do you know that’s a great deal to say — what you said just now? I mean about your being the best friend I have.”
“Of course I do, and that’s exactly why I said it. You see I’m not in the least delicate or graceful or shy about it — I just come out with it and defy you to contradict me. Who, if I’m not the best, is a better one?”
“Well,” Nanda replied, “I feel since I’ve known Mr. Longdon that I’ve almost the sort of friend who makes every one else not count.”
“Then at the end of three months he has arrived at a value for you that I haven’t reached in all these years?”
“Yes,” she returned —“the value of my not being afraid of him.”
Vanderbank, on the bench, shifted his position, turning more to her and throwing an arm over the back. “And you’re afraid of ME?”
“Horribly — hideously.”
“Then our long, our happy relations —?”
“They’re just what makes my terror,” she broke in, “particularly abject. Happy relations don’t matter. I always think of you with fear.”
His elbow rested on the back and his hand supported his head. “How awfully curious — if it be true!”
She had been looking away to the sweet English distance, but at this she made a movement. “Oh Mr. Van, I’m ‘true’!”
As Mr. Van himself couldn’t have expressed at any subsequent time to any interested friend the particular effect upon him of the tone of these words his chronicler takes advantage of the fact not to pretend to a greater intelligence — to limit himself on the contrary to the simple statement that they produced in Mr. Van’s cheek a flush just discernible. “Fear of what?”
“I don’t know. Fear is fear.”
“Yes, yes — I see.” He took out another cigarette and occupied a moment in lighting it. “Well, kindness is kindness too — that’s all one can say.”
He had smoked again a while before she turned to him. “Have I wounded you by saying that?”
A certain effect of his flush was still in his smile. “It seems to me I should like you to wound me. I did what I wanted a moment ago,” he continued with some precipitation: “I brought you out handsomely on the subject of Mr. Longdon. That was my idea — just to draw you.”
“Well,” said Nanda, looking away again, “he has come into my life.”
“He couldn’t have come into a place where it gives me more pleasure to see him.”
“But he didn’t like, the other day when I used it to him, that expression,” the girl returned. “He called it ‘mannered modern slang’ and came back again to the extraordinary difference between my speech and my grandmother’s.”
“Of course,” the young man understandingly assented. “But I rather like your speech. Hasn’t he by this time, with you,” he pursued, “crossed the gulf? He has with me.”
“Ah with you there was no gulf. He liked you from the first.”
Vanderbank wondered. “You mean I managed him so well?”
“I don’t know how you managed him, but liking me has been for him a painful gradual process. I think he does now,” Nanda declared. “He accepts me at last as different — he’s trying with me on that basis. He has ended by understanding that when he talks to me of Granny I can’t even imagine her.”
Vanderbank puffed away. “I can.”
“That’s what Mitchy says too. But you’ve both probably got her wrong.”
“I don’t know,” said Vanderbank —“I’ve gone into it a good deal. But it’s too late. We can’t be Greeks if we would.”
Even for this Nanda had no laugh, though she had a quick attention. “Do you call Granny a Greek?”
Her companion slowly rose. “Yes — to finish her off handsomely and have done with her.” He looked again at his watch. “Shall we go? I want to see if my man and my things have turned up.”
She kept her seat; there was something to revert to. “My fear of you isn’t superficial. I mean it isn’t immediate — not of you just as you stand,” she explained. “It’s of some dreadfully possible future you.”
“Well,” said the young man, smiling down at her, “don’t forget that if there’s to be such a monster there’ll also be a future you, proportionately developed, to deal with him.”
She had closed her parasol in the shade and her eyes attached themselves to the small hole she had dug in the ground with its point. “We shall both have moved, you mean?”
“It’s charming to feel we shall probably have moved together.”
“Ah if moving’s changing,” she returned, “there won’t be much for me in that. I shall never change — I shall be always just the same. The same old mannered modern slangy hack,” she continued quite gravely. “Mr. Longdon has made me feel that.”
Vanderbank laughed aloud, and it was especially at her seriousness. “Well, upon my soul!”
“Yes,” she pursued, “what I am I must remain. I haven’t what’s called a principle of growth.” Making marks in the earth with her umbrella she appeared to cipher it out. “I’m about as good as I can be-and about as bad. If Mr. Longdon can’t make me different nobody can.”
Vanderbank could only speak in the tone of high amusement. “And he has given up the hope?”
“Yes — though not ME altogether. He has given up the hope he originally had.”
“He gives up quickly — in three months!”
“Oh these three months,” she answered, “have been a long time: the fullest, the most important, for what has happened in them, of my life.” She still poked at the ground; then she added: “And all thanks to YOU.”
“To me?”— Vanderbank couldn’t fancy!
“Why, for what we were speaking of just now — my being today so in everything and squeezing up and down no matter whose staircase. Isn’t it one crowded hour of glorious life?” she asked. “What preceded it was an age, no doubt — but an age without a name.”
Vanderbank watched her a little in silence, then spoke quite beside the question. “It’s astonishing how at moments you remind me of your mother!”
At this she got up. “Ah there it is! It’s what I shall never shake off. That, I imagine, is what Mr. Longdon feels.”
Both on their feet now, as if ready for the others, they yet — and even a trifle awkwardly — lingered. It might in fact have appeared to a spectator that some climax had come, on the young man’s part, to some state of irresolution about the utterance of something. What were the words so repeatedly on his lips, yet so repeatedly not sounded? It would have struck our observer that they were probably not those his lips even now actually formed. “Doesn’t he perhaps talk to you too much about yourself?”
Nanda gave him a dim smile, and he might indeed then have exclaimed on a certain resemblance, a resemblance of expression that had nothing to do with form. It wouldn’t have been diminished for him moreover by her successful suppression of every sign that she felt his question a little of a snub. The recall he had previously mentioned could, however, as she answered him, only have been brushed away by a supervening sense of his roughness. “It probably isn’t so much that as my own way of going on.” She spoke with a mildness that could scarce have been so full without being an effort. “Between his patience and my egotism anything’s possible. It isn’t his talking — it’s his listening.” She gave up the point, at any rate, as if from softness to her actual companion. “Wasn’t it you who spoke to mamma about my sitting with her? That’s what I mean by my debt to you. It’s through you that I’m always there — through you and perhaps a little through Mitchy.”
“Oh through Mitchy — it MUST have been — more than through me.” Vanderbank spoke with the manner of humouring her about a trifle. “Mitchy, delightful man, felt on the subject of your eternal exile, I think, still more strongly.”
They quitted their place together and at the end of a few steps became aware of the approach of one of the others, a figure but a few yards off, arriving from the quarter from which Nanda had come. “Ah Mr. Longdon!”— she spoke with eagerness now.
Vanderbank instantly waved his hat. “Dear old boy!”
“Between you all, at any rate,” she said more gaily, “you’ve brought me down.”
Vanderbank made no answer till they met their friend, when, by way of greeting, he simply echoed her words. “Between us all, you’ll be glad to know, we’ve brought her down.”
Mr. Longdon looked from one of them to the other. “Where have you been together?”
Nanda was the first to respond. “Only talking — on a bench.”
“Well, I want to talk on a bench!” Their friend showed a spirit.
“With me, of course?”— Vanderbank met it with encouragement.
The girl said nothing, but Mr. Longdon sought her eyes. “No — with Nanda. You must mingle in the crowd.”
“Ah,” the their companion laughed, “you two are the crowd!”
“Well — have your tea first.”
Vanderbank on this, giving it up with the air of amused accommodation that was never — certainly for these two — at fault in him, offered to Mr. Longdon before departing the handshake of greeting he had omitted; a demonstration really the warmer for the tone of the joke that went with it. “Intrigant!”
Nanda praised to the satellite so fantastically described the charming spot she had quitted, with the effect that they presently took fresh possession of it, finding the beauty of the view deepened as the afternoon grew old and the shadows long. They were of a comfortable agreement on these matters, by which moreover they were but little delayed, one of the pair at least being too conscious, for the hour, of still other phenomena than the natural and peaceful process that filled the air. “Well, you must tell me about these things,” Mr. Longdon sociably said: he had joined his young friend with a budget of impressions rapidly gathered at the house; as to which his appeal to her for a light or two may be taken as the measure of the confidence now ruling their relations. He had come to feel at last, he mentioned, that he could allow for most differences; yet in such a situation as the present bewilderment could only come back. There were no differences in the world — so it had all ended for him — but those that marked at every turn the manners he had for three months been observing in good society. The general wide deviation of this body occupied his mind to the exclusion of almost everything else, and he had finally been brought to believe that even in his slow-paced prime he must have hung behind his contemporaries. He had not supposed at the moment — in the fifties and the sixties — that he passed for old-fashioned, but life couldn’t have left him so far in the rear had the start between them originally been fair. This was the way he had more than once put the matter to the girl; which gives a sufficient hint, it is hoped, of the range of some of their talk. It had always wound up indeed, their talk, with some assumption of the growth of his actual understanding; but it was just these pauses in the fray that seemed to lead from time to time to a sharper clash. It was apt to be when he felt as if he had exhausted surprises that he really received his greatest shocks. There were no such queer-tasting draughts as some of those yielded by the bucket that had repeatedly, as he imagined, touched the bottom of the well. “Now this sudden invasion of somebody’s — heaven knows whose — house, and our dropping down on it like a swarm of locusts: I dare say it isn’t civil to criticise it when one’s going too, so almost culpably, with the stream; but what are people made of that they consent, just for money, to the violation of their homes?”
Nanda wondered; she cultivated the sense of his making her intensely reflect, “But haven’t people in England always let their places?”
“If we’re a nation of shopkeepers, you mean, it can’t date, on the scale on which we show it, only from last week? No doubt, no doubt, and the more one thinks of it the more one seems to see that society — for we’re IN society, aren’t we, and that’s our horizon? — can never have been anything but increasingly vulgar. The point is that in the twilight of time — and I belong, you see, to the twilight — it had made out much less how vulgar it COULD be. It did its best very probably, but there were too many superstitions it had to get rid of. It has been throwing them overboard one by one, so that now the ship sails uncommonly light. That’s the way”— and with his eyes on the golden distance he ingeniously followed it out —“I come to feel so the lurching and pitching. If I weren’t a pretty fair sailor — well, as it is, my dear,” he interrupted himself with a laugh, “I show you often enough what grabs I make for support.” He gave a faint gasp, half amusement, half anguish, then abruptly relieved himself by a question. “To whom in point of fact does the place belong?”
“I’m awfully ashamed, but I’m afraid I don’t know. That just came up here,” the girl went on, “for Mr. Van.”
Mr. Longdon seemed to think an instant. “Oh it came up, did it? And Mr. Van couldn’t tell?”
“He has quite forgotten — though he has been here before. Of course it may have been with other people,” she added in extenuation. “I mean it mayn’t have been theirs then any more than it’s Mitchy’s.”
“I see. They too had just bundled in.”
Nanda completed the simple history. “To-day it’s Mitchy who bundles, and I believe that really he bundled only yesterday. He turned in his people and here we are.”
“Here we are, here we are!” her friend more gravely echoed. “Well, it’s splendid!”
As if at a note in his voice her eyes, while his own still strayed away, just fixed him. “Don’t you think it’s really rather exciting? Everything’s ready, the feast all spread, and with nothing to blunt our curiosity but the general knowledge that there will be people and things — with nothing but that we comfortably take our places.” He answered nothing, though her picture apparently reached him. “There ARE people, there ARE things, and all in a plenty. Had every one, when you came away, turned up?” she asked as he was still silent.
“I dare say. There were some ladies and gentlemen on the terrace whom I didn’t know. But I looked only for you and came this way on an indication of your mother’s.”
“And did she ask that if you should find me with Mr. Van you’d make him come to her?”
Mr. Longdon replied to this with some delay and without movement. “How could she have supposed he was here?”
“Since he had not yet been to the house? Oh it has always been a wonder to me, the things that mamma supposes! I see she asked you,” Nanda insisted.
At this her old friend turned to her. “But it wasn’t because of that I got rid of him.”
She had a pause. “No — you don’t mind everything mamma says.”
“I don’t mind ‘everything’ anybody says: not even, my dear, when the person’s you.”
Again she waited an instant. “Not even when it’s Mr. Van?”
Mr. Longdon candidly considered. “Oh I take him up on all sorts of things.”
“That shows then the importance they have for you. Is HE like his grandmother?” the girl pursued. Then as her companion looked vague: “Wasn’t it his grandmother too you knew?”
He had an extraordinary smile. “His mother.”
She exclaimed, colouring, on her mistake, and he added: “I’m not so bad as that. But you’re none of you like them.”
“Wasn’t she pretty?” Nanda asked.
“Very handsome. But it makes no difference. She herself today wouldn’t know him.”
She gave a small gasp. “His own mother wouldn’t —?”
His headshake just failed of sharpness. “No, nor he her. There’s a link missing.” Then as if after all she might take him too seriously, “Of course it’s I,” he more gently moralised, “who have lost the link in my sleep. I’ve slept half the century — I’m Rip Van Winkle.” He went back after a moment to her question. “He’s not at any rate like his mother.”
She turned it over. “Perhaps you wouldn’t think so much of her now.”
“Perhaps not. At all events my snatching you from Mr. Vanderbank was my own idea.”
“I wasn’t thinking,” Nanda said, “of your snatching me. I was thinking of your snatching yourself.”
“I might have sent YOU to the house? Well,” Mr. Longdon replied, “I find I take more and more the economical view of my pleasures. I run them less and less together. I get all I can out of each.”
“So now you’re getting all you can out of ME?”
“All I can, my dear — all I can.” He watched a little the flushed distance, then mildly broke out: “It IS, as you said just now, exciting! But it makes me”— and he became abrupt again —“want you, as I’ve already told you, to come to MY place. Not, however, that we may be still more mad together.”
The girl shared from the bench his contemplation. “Do you call THIS madness?”
Well, he rather stuck to it. “You spoke of it yourself as excitement. You’ll make of course one of your fine distinctions, but I take it in my rough way as a whirl. We’re going round and round.” In a minute he had folded his arms with the same closeness Vanderbank had used — in a minute he too was nervously shaking his foot. “Steady, steady; if we sit close we shall see it through. But come down to Suffolk for sanity.”
“You do mean then that I may come alone?”
“I won’t receive you, I assure you, on any other terms. I want to show you,” he continued, “what life CAN give. Not of course,” he subjoined, “of this sort of thing.”
“No — you’ve told me. Of peace.”
“Of peace,” said Mr. Longdon. “Oh you don’t know — you haven’t the least idea. That’s just why I want to show you.”
Nanda looked as if already she saw it in the distance. “But will it be peace if I’m there? I mean for YOU,” she added.
“It isn’t a question of ‘me.’ Everybody’s omelet is made of somebody’s eggs. Besides, I think that when we’re alone together —!”
He had dropped for so long that she wondered. “Well, when we are —?”
“Why, it will be all right,” he simply concluded. “Temples of peace, the ancients used to call them. We’ll set up one, and I shall be at least doorkeeper. You’ll come down whenever you like.”
She gave herself to him in her silence more than she could have done in words. “Have you arranged it with mamma?” she said, however, at last.
“I’ve arranged everything.”
“SHE won’t want to come?”
Her friend’s laugh turned him to her. “Don’t be nervous. There are things as to which your mother trusts me.”
“But others as to which not.”
Their eyes met for some time on this, and it ended in his saying: “Well, you must help me.” Nanda, but without shrinking, looked away again, and Mr. Longdon, as if to consecrate their understanding by the air of ease, passed to another subject. “Mr. Mitchett’s the most princely host.”
“Isn’t he too kind for anything? Do you know what he pretends?” Nanda went on. “He says in the most extraordinary way that he does it all for ME.”
“Takes this great place and fills it with servants and company —?”
“Yes, just so that I may come down for a Sunday or two. Of course he has only taken it for three or four weeks, but even for that time it’s a handsome compliment. He doesn’t care what he does. It’s his way of amusing himself. He amuses himself at our expense,” the girl continued.
“Well, I hope that makes up, my dear, for the rate at which we’re doing so at his!”
“His amusement,” said Nanda, “is to see us believe what he says.”
Mr. Longdon thought a moment. “Really, my child, you’re most acute.”
“Oh I haven’t watched life for nothing! Mitchy doesn’t care,” she repeated.
Her companion seemed divided between a desire to draw and a certain fear to encourage her. “Doesn’t care for what?”
She considered an instant, all coherently, and it might have added to Mr. Longdon’s impression of her depth. “Well, for himself. I mean for his money. For anything any one may think. For Lord Petherton, for instance, really at all. Lord Petherton thinks he has helped him — thinks, that is, that Mitchy thinks he has. But Mitchy’s more amused at HIM than at anybody else. He takes every one in.”
“Every one but you?”
“Oh I like him.”
“My poor child, you’re of a profundity!” Mr. Longdon murmured.
He spoke almost uneasily, but she was not too much alarmed to continue lucid. “And he likes me, and I know just how much — and just how little. He’s the most generous man in the world. It pleases him to feel that he’s indifferent and splendid — there are so many things it makes up to him for.” The old man listened with attention, and his young friend conscious of it, proceeded as on ground of which she knew every inch. “He’s the son, as you know, of a great bootmaker —‘to all the Courts of Europe’— who left him a large fortune, which had been made, I believe, in the most extraordinary way, by building-speculations as well.”
“Oh yes, I know. It’s astonishing!” her companion sighed.
“That he should be of such extraction?”
“Well, everything. That you should be talking as you are — that you should have ‘watched life,’ as you say, to such purpose. That we should any of us be here — most of all that Mr. Mitchett himself should. That your grandmother’s daughter should have brought HER daughter —”
“To stay with a person”— Nanda took it up as, apparently out of delicacy, he fairly failed —“whose father used to take the measure, down on his knees on a little mat, as mamma says, of my grandfather’s remarkably large foot? Yes, we none of us mind. Do you think we should?” Nanda asked.
Mr. Longdon turned it over. “I’ll answer you by a question. Would you marry him?”
“Never.” Then as if to show there was no weakness in her mildness, “Never, never, never,” she repeated.
“And yet I dare say you know —?” But Mr. Longdon once more faltered; his scruple came uppermost. “You don’t mind my speaking of it?”
“Of his thinking he wants to marry me? Not a bit. I positively enjoy telling you there’s nothing in it.”
“Not even for HIM?”
Nanda considered. “Not more than is made up to him by his having found out through talks and things — which mightn’t otherwise have occurred — that I do like him. I wouldn’t have come down here if I hadn’t liked him.”
“Not for any other reason?”— Mr. Longdon put it gravely.
“Not for YOUR being here, do you mean?”
He delayed. “Me and other persons.”
She showed somehow that she wouldn’t flinch. “You weren’t asked till after he had made sure I’d come. We’ve become, you and I,” she smiled, “one of the couples who are invited together.”
These were couples, his speculative eye seemed to show, he didn’t even yet know about, and if he mentally took them up a moment it was all promptly to drop them. “I don’t think you state it quite strongly enough, you know.”
“That Mitchy IS hard hit? He states it so strongly himself that it will surely do for both of us. I’m a part of what I just spoke of — his indifference and magnificence. It’s as if he could only afford to do what’s not vulgar. He might perfectly marry a duke’s daughter, but that WOULD be vulgar — would be the absolute necessity and ideal of nine out of ten of the sons of shoemakers made ambitious by riches. Mitchy says ‘No; I take my own line; I go in for a beggar-maid.’ And it’s only because I’m a beggar-maid that he wants me.”
“But there are plenty of other beggar-maids,” Mr. Longdon objected.
“Oh I admit I’m the one he least dislikes. But if I had any money,” Nanda went on, “or if I were really good-looking — for that today, the real thing, will do as well as being a duke’s daughter — he wouldn’t come near me. And I think that ought to settle it. Besides, he must marry Aggie. She’s a beggar-maid too — as well as an angel. So there’s nothing against it.”
Mr. Longdon stared, but even in his surprise seemed to take from the swiftness with which she made him move over the ground a certain agreeable glow. “Does ‘Aggie’ like him?”
“She likes every one. As I say, she’s an angel — but a real, real, real one. The kindest man in the world’s therefore the proper husband for her. If Mitchy wants to do something thoroughly nice,” she declared with the same high competence, “he’ll take her out of her situation, which is awful.”
Mr. Longdon looked graver. “In what way awful?”
“Why, don’t you know?” His eye was now cold enough to give her, in her chill, a flurried sense that she might displease him least by a graceful lightness. “The Duchess and Lord Petherton are like you and me.”
“Is it a conundrum?” He was serious indeed.
“They’re one of the couples who are invited together.” But his face reflected so little success for her levity that it was in another tone she presently added: “Mitchy really oughtn’t.” Her friend, in silence, fixed his eyes on the ground; an attitude in which there was something to make her strike rather wild. “But of course, kind as he is, he can scarcely be called particular. He has his ideas — he thinks nothing matters. He says we’ve all come to a pass that’s the end of everything.”
Mr. Longdon remained mute a while, and when he at last, raised his eyes it was without meeting Nanda’s and with some dryness of manner. “The end of everything? One might easily receive that impression.”
He again became mute, and there was a pause between them of some length, accepted by Nanda with an anxious stillness that it might have touched a spectator to observe. She sat there as if waiting for some further sign, only wanting not to displease her friend, yet unable to pretend to play any part and with something in her really that she couldn’t take back now, something involved in her original assumption that there was to be a kind of intelligence in their relation. “I dare say,” she said at last, “that I make allusions you don’t like. But I keep forgetting.”
He waited a moment longer, then turned to her with a look rendered a trifle strange by the way it happened to reach over his glasses. It was even austerer than before. “Keep forgetting what?”
She gave after an instant a faint feeble smile which seemed to speak of helplessness and which, when at rare moments it played in her face, was expressive from her positive lack of personal, superficial diffidence. “Well — I don’t know.” It was as if appearances became at times so complicated that — so far as helping others to understand was concerned — she could only give up.
“I hope you don’t think I want you to be with me as you wouldn’t be-so to speak — with yourself. I hope you don’t think I don’t want you to be frank. If you were to try to APPEAR to me anything —!” He ended in simple sadness: that, for instance, would be so little what he should like.
“Anything different, you mean, from what I am? That’s just what I’ve thought from the first. One’s just what one IS— isn’t one? I don’t mean so much,” she went on, “in one’s character or temper — for they have, haven’t they? to be what’s called ‘properly controlled’— as in one’s mind and what one sees and feels and the sort of thing one notices.” Nanda paused an instant; then “There you are!” she simply but rather desperately brought out.
Mr. Longdon considered this with visible intensity. “What you suggest is that the things you speak of depend on other people?”
“Well, every one isn’t so beautiful as you.” She had met him with promptitude, yet no sooner had she spoken than she appeared again to encounter a difficulty. “But there it is — my just saying even that. Oh how I always know — as I’ve told you before — whenever I’m different! I can’t ask you to tell me the things Granny WOULD have said, because that’s simply arranging to keep myself back from you, and so being nasty and underhand, which you naturally don’t want, nor I either. Nevertheless when I say the things she wouldn’t, then I put before you too much — too much for your liking it — what I know and see and feel. If we’re both partly the result of other people, HER other people were so different.” The girl’s sensitive boldness kept it up, but there was something in her that pleaded for patience. “And yet if she had YOU, so I’ve got you too. It’s the flattery of that, or the sound of it, I know, that must be so unlike her. Of course it’s awfully like mother; yet it isn’t as if you hadn’t already let me see — is it? — that you don’t really think me the same.” Again she stopped a minute, as to find her scarce possible way with him, and again for the time he gave no sign. She struck out once more with her strange cool limpidity. “Granny wasn’t the kind of girl she COULDN’t be-and so neither am I.”
Mr. Longdon had fallen while she talked into something that might have been taken for a conscious temporary submission to her; he had uncrossed his fidgety legs and, thrusting them out with the feet together, sat looking very hard before him, his chin sunk on his breast and his hands, clasped as they met, rapidly twirling their thumbs. So he remained for a time that might have given his young friend the sense of having made herself right for him so far as she had been wrong. He still had all her attention, just as previously she had had his, but, while he now simply gazed and thought, she watched him with a discreet solicitude that would almost have represented him as a near relative whom she supposed unwell. At the end he looked round, and then, obeying some impulse that had gathered in her while they sat mute, she put out to him the tender hand she might have offered to a sick child. They had been talking about frankness, but she showed a frankness in this instance that made him perceptibly colour. To that in turn, however, he responded only the more completely, taking her hand and holding it, keeping it a long minute during which their eyes met and something seemed to clear up that had been too obscure to be dispelled by words. Finally he brought out as if, though it was what he had been thinking of, her gesture had most determined him: “I wish immensely you’d get married!”
His tone betrayed so special a meaning that the words had a sound of suddenness; yet there was always in Nanda’s face that odd preparedness of the young person who has unlearned surprise through the habit, in company, of studiously not compromising her innocence by blinking at things said. “How CAN I?” she asked, but appearing rather to take up the proposal than to put it by.
“Can’t you, CAN’T you?” He spoke pressingly and kept her hand. She shook her head slowly, markedly; on which he continued: “You don’t do justice to Mr. Mitchy.” She said nothing, but her look was there and it made him resume: “Impossible?”
“Impossible.” At this, letting her go, Mr. Longden got up; he pulled out his watch. “We must go back.” She had risen with him and they stood face to face in the faded light while he slipped the watch away. “Well, that doesn’t make me wish it any less.”
“It’s lovely of you to wish it, but I shall be one of the people who don’t. I shall be at the end,” said Nanda, “one of those who haven’t.”
“No, my child,” he returned gravely —“you shall never be anything so sad.”
“Why not — if YOU’VE been?” He looked at her a little, quietly, and then, putting out his hand, passed her own into his arm. “Exactly because I have.”
“Would you” the Duchess said to him the next day, “be for five minutes awfully kind to my poor little niece?” The words were spoken in charming entreaty as he issued from the house late on the Sunday afternoon — the second evening of his stay, which the next morning was to bring to an end — and on his meeting the speaker at one of the extremities of the wide cool terrace. There was at this point a subsidiary flight of steps by which she had just mounted from the grounds, one of her purposes being apparently to testify afresh to the anxious supervision of little Aggie she had momentarily suffered herself to be diverted from. This young lady, established in the pleasant shade on a sofa of light construction designed for the open air, offered the image of a patience of which it was a questionable kindness to break the spell. It was that beautiful hour when, toward the close of the happiest days of summer, such places as the great terrace at Mertle present to the fancy a recall of the banquet-hall deserted — deserted by the company lately gathered at tea and now dispersed, according to affinities and combinations promptly felt and perhaps quite as promptly criticised, either in quieter chambers where intimacy might deepen or in gardens and under trees where the stillness knew the click of balls and the good humour of games. There had been chairs, on the terrace, pushed about; there were ungathered teacups on the level top of the parapet; the servants in fact, in the manner of “hands” mustered by a whistle on the deck of a ship, had just arrived to restore things to an order soon again to be broken. There were scattered couples in sight below and an idle group on the lawn, out of the midst of which, in spite of its detachment, somebody was sharp enough sometimes to cry “Out!” The high daylight was still in the sky, but with just the foreknowledge already of the long golden glow in which the many-voiced caw of the rooks would sound at once sociable and sad. There was a great deal all about to be aware of and to look at, but little Aggie had her eyes on a book over which her pretty head was bent with a docility visible even from afar. “I’ve a friend — down there by the lake — to go back to,” the Duchess went on, “and I’m on my way to my room to get a letter that I’ve promised to show him. I shall immediately bring it down and then in a few minutes be able to relieve you — I don’t leave her alone too much — one doesn’t, you know, in a house full of people, a child of that age. Besides”— and Mr. Longdon’s interlocutress was even more confiding —“I do want you so very intensely to know her. You, par exemple, you’re what I SHOULD like to give her.” Mr. Longdon looked the noble lady, in acknowledgement of her appeal, straight in the face, and who can tell whether or no she acutely guessed from his expression that he recognised this particular juncture as written on the page of his doom? — whether she heard him inaudibly say “Ah here it is: I knew it would have to come!” She would at any rate have been astute enough, had this miracle occurred, quite to complete his sense for her own understanding and suffer it to make no difference in the tone in which she still confronted him. “Oh I take the bull by the horns — I know you haven’t wanted to know me. If you had you’d have called on me — I’ve given you plenty of hints and little coughs. Now, you see, I don’t cough any more — I just rush at you and grab you. You don’t call on me — so I call on YOU. There isn’t any indecency moreover that I won’t commit for my child.”
Mr. Longdon’s impenetrability crashed like glass at the elbow-touch of this large handsome practised woman, who walked for him, like some brazen pagan goddess, in a cloud of queer legend. He looked off at her child, who, at a distance and not hearing them, had not moved. “I know she’s a great friend of Nanda’s.”
“Has Nanda told you that?”
“Often — taking such an interest in her.”
“I’m glad she thinks so then — though really her interests are so various. But come to my baby. I don’t make HER come,” she explained as she swept him along, “because I want you just to sit down by her there and keep the place, as one may say —!”
“Well, for whom?” he demanded as she stopped. It was her step that had checked itself as well as her tongue, and again, suddenly, they stood quite consciously and vividly opposed. “Can I trust you?” the Duchess brought out. Again then she took herself up. “But as if I weren’t already doing it! It’s because I do trust you so utterly that I haven’t been able any longer to keep my hands off you. The person I want the place for is none other than Mitchy himself, and half my occupation now is to get it properly kept for him. Lord Petherton’s immensely kind, but Lord Petherton can’t do everything. I know you really like our host —!”
Mr. Longdon, at this, interrupted her with a certain coldness. “How, may I ask, do you know it?”
But with a brazen goddess to deal with —! This personage had to fix him but an instant. “Because, you dear honest man, you’re here. You wouldn’t be if you hated him, for you don’t practically condone —!”
This time he broke in with his eyes on the child. “I feel on the contrary, I assure you, that I condone a great deal.”
“Well, don’t boast of your cynicism,” she laughed, “till you’re sure of all it covers. Let the right thing for you be,” she went on, “that Nanda herself wants it.”
“Nanda herself?” He continued to watch little Aggie, who had never yet turned her head. “I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”
She swept him on again. “I’ll come to you presently and explain. I MUST get my letter for Petherton; after which I’ll give up Mitchy, whom I was going to find, and since I’ve broken the ice — if it isn’t too much to say to such a polar bear! — I’ll show you le fond de ma pensee. Baby darling,” she said to her niece, “keep Mr. Longdon. Show him,” she benevolently suggested, “what you’ve been reading.” Then again to her fellow guest, as arrested by this very question: “Caro signore, have YOU a possible book?”
Little Aggie had got straight up and was holding out her volume, which Mr. Longdon, all courtesy for her, glanced at. “Stories from English History. Oh!”
His ejaculation, though vague, was not such as to prevent the girl from venturing gently: “Have you read it?”
Mr. Longdon, receiving her pure little smile, showed he felt he had never so taken her in as at this moment, as well as also that she was a person with whom he should surely get on. “I think I must have.”
Little Aggie was still more encouraged, but not to the point of keeping anything back. “It hasn’t any author. It’s anonymous.”
The Duchess borrowed, for another question to Mr. Longdon, not a little of her gravity. “Is it all right?”
“I don’t know”— his answer was to Aggie. “There have been some horrid things in English history.”
“Oh horrid — HAVEN’T there?” Aggie, whose speech had the prettiest faintest foreignness, sweetly and eagerly quavered.
“Well, darling, Mr. Longdon will recommend to you some nice historical work — for we love history, don’t we? — that leaves the horrors out. We like to know,” the Duchess explained to the authority she invoked, “the cheerful happy RIGHT things. There are so many, after all, and this is the place to remember them. A tantot.”
As she passed into the house by the nearest of the long windows that stood open Mr. Longdon placed himself beside her little charge, whom he treated, for the next ten minutes, with an exquisite courtesy. A person who knew him well would, if present at the scene, have found occasion in it to be freshly aware that he was in his quiet way master of two distinct kinds of urbanity, the kind that added to distance and the kind that diminished it. Such an analyst would furthermore have noted, in respect to the aunt and the niece, of which kind each had the benefit, and might even have gone so far as to detect in him some absolute betrayal of the impression produced on him by his actual companion, some irradiation of his certitude that, from the point of view under which she had been formed, she was a remarkable, a rare success. Since to create a particular little rounded and tinted innocence had been aimed at, the fruit had been grown to the perfection of a peach on a sheltered wall, and this quality of the object resulting from a process might well make him feel himself in contact with something wholly new. Little Aggie differed from any young person he had ever met in that she had been deliberately prepared for consumption and in that furthermore the gentleness of her spirit had immensely helped the preparation. Nanda, beside her, was a Northern savage, and the reason was partly that the elements of that young lady’s nature were already, were publicly, were almost indecorously active. They were practically there for good or for ill; experience was still to come and what they might work out to still a mystery; but the sum would get itself done with the figures now on the slate. On little Aggie’s slate the figures were yet to be written; which sufficiently accounted for the difference of the two surfaces. Both the girls struck him as lambs with the great shambles of life in their future; but while one, with its neck in a pink ribbon, had no consciousness but that of being fed from the hand with the small sweet biscuit of unobjectionable knowledge, the other struggled with instincts and forebodings, with the suspicion of its doom and the far-borne scent, in the flowery fields, of blood.
“Oh Nanda, she’s my best friend after three or four others.”
“After so many?” Mr. Longdon laughed. “Don’t you think that’s rather a back seat, as they say, for one’s best?”
“A back seat?”— she wondered with a purity!
“If you don’t understand,” said her companion, “it serves me right, as your aunt didn’t leave me with you to teach you the slang of the day.”
“The ‘slang’?”— she again spotlessly speculated.
“You’ve never even heard the expression? I should think that a great compliment to our time if it weren’t that I fear it may have been only the name that has been kept from you.”
The light of ignorance in the child’s smile was positively golden. “The name?” she again echoed.
She understood too little — he gave it up. “And who are all the other best friends whom poor Nanda comes after?”
“Well, there’s my aunt, and Miss Merriman, and Gelsomina, and Dr. Beltram.”
“And who, please, is Miss Merriman?”
“She’s my governess, don’t you know? — but such a deliciously easy governess.”
“That, I suppose, is because she has such a deliciously easy pupil. And who is Gelsomina?” Mr. Longdon enquired.
“She’s my old nurse — my old maid.”
“I see. Well, one must always be kind to old maids. But who’s Dr. Beltram?”
“Oh the most intimate friend of all. We tell him everything.”
There was for Mr. Longdon in this, with a slight incertitude, an effect of drollery. “Your little troubles?”
“Ah they’re not always so little! And he takes them all away.”
“Always? — on the spot?”
“Sooner or later,” said little Aggie with serenity. “But why not?”
“Why not indeed?” he laughed. “It must be very plain sailing.” Decidedly she was, as Nanda had said, an angel, and there was a wonder in her possession on this footing of one of the most expressive little faces that even her expressive race had ever shown him. Formed to express everything, it scarce expressed as yet even a consciousness. All the elements of play were in it, but they had nothing to play with. It was a rest moreover, after so much that he had lately been through, to be with a person for whom questions were so simple. “But he sounds all the same like the kind of doctor whom, as soon as one hears of him, one wants to send for.”
The young girl had at this a small light of confusion. “Oh I don’t mean he’s a doctor for medicine. He’s a clergyman — and my aunt says he’s a saint. I don’t think you’ve many in England,” little Aggie continued to explain.
“Many saints? I’m afraid not. Your aunt’s very happy to know one. We should call Dr. Beltram in England a priest.”
“Oh but he’s English. And he knows everything we do — and everything we think.”
“‘We’— your aunt, your governess and your nurse? What a varied wealth of knowledge!”
“Ah Miss Merriman and Gelsomina tell him only what they like.”
“And do you and the Duchess tell him what you DON’T like?”
“Oh often — but we always like HIM— no matter what we tell him. And we know that just the same he always likes us.”
“I see then of course,” said Mr. Longdon, very gravely now, “what a friend he must be. So it’s after all this,” he continued in a moment, “that Nanda comes in?”
His companion had to consider, but suddenly she caught assistance. “This one, I think, comes before.” Lord Petherton, arriving apparently from the garden, had drawn near unobserved by Mr. Longdon and the next moment was within hail. “I see him very often,” she continued —“oftener than Nanda. Oh but THEN Nanda. And then,” little Aggie wound up, “Mr. Mitchy.”
“Oh I’m glad HE comes in,” Mr. Longdon returned, “though rather far down in the list.” Lord Petherton was now before them, there being no one else on the terrace to speak to, and, with the odd look of an excess of physical power that almost blocked the way, he seemed to give them in the flare of his big teeth the benefit of a kind of brutal geniality. It was always to be remembered for him that he could scarce show without surprising you an adjustment to the smaller conveniences; so that when he took up a trifle it was not perforce in every case the sign of an uncanny calculation. When the elephant in the show plays the fiddle it must be mainly with the presumption of consequent apples; which was why, doubtless, this personage had half the time the air of assuring you that, really civilised as his type had now become, no apples were required. Mr. Longdon viewed him with a vague apprehension and as if quite unable to meet the question of what he would have called for such a personage the social responsibility. Did this specimen of his class pull the tradition down or did he just take it where he found it — in the very different place from that in which, on ceasing so long ago to “go out,” Mr. Longdon had left it? Our friend doubtless averted himself from the possibility of a mental dilemma; if the man didn’t lower the position was it the position then that let down the man? Somehow he wasn’t positively up. More evidence would be needed to decide; yet it was just of more evidence that one remained rather in dread. Lord Petherton was kind to little Aggie, kind to her companion, kind to every one, after Mr. Longdon had explained that she was so good as to be giving him the list of her dear friends. “I’m only a little dismayed,” the elder man said, “to find Mr. Mitchett at the bottom.”
“Oh but it’s an awfully short list, isn’t it? If it consists only of me and Mitchy he’s not so very low down. We don’t allow her very MANY friends; we look out too well for ourselves.” He addressed the child as on an easy jocose understanding. “Is the question, Aggie, whether we shall allow you Mr. Longdon? Won’t that rather ‘do’ for us — for Mitchy and me? I say, Duchess,” he went on as this lady reappeared, “ARE we going to allow her Mr. Longdon and do we quite realise what we’re about? We mount guard awfully, you know”— he carried the joke back to the person he had named. “We sift and we sort, we pick the candidates over, and I should like to hear any one say that in this case at least I don’t keep a watch on my taste. Oh we close in!”
The Duchess, the object of her quest in her hand, had come back. “Well then Mr. Longdon will close WITH us — you’ll consider henceforth that he’s as safe as yourself. Here’s the letter I wanted you to read — with which you’ll please take a turn, in strict charge of the child, and then restore her to us. If you don’t come I shall know you’ve found Mitchy and shall be at peace. Go, little heart,” she continued to the child, “but leave me your book to look over again. I don’t know that I’m quite sure!” She sent them off together, but had a grave protest as her friend put out his hand for the volume. “No, Petherton — not for books; for her reading I can’t say I do trust you. But for everything else — quite!” she declared to Mr. Longdon with a look of conscientious courage as their companion withdrew. “I do believe,” she pursued in the same spirit, “in a certain amount of intelligent confidence. Really nice men are steadied by the sense of your having had it. But I wouldn’t,” she added gaily, “trust him all round!”
Many things at Mertle were strange for her interlocutor, but nothing perhaps as yet had been so strange as the sight of this arrangement for little Aggie’s protection; an arrangement made in the interest of her remaining as a young person of her age and her monde — so her aunt would have put it — should remain. The strangest part of the impression too was that the provision might really have its happy side and his lordship understand definitely better than any one else his noble friend’s whole theory of perils and precautions. The child herself, the spectator of the incident was sure enough, understood nothing; but the understandings that surrounded her, filling all the air, made it a heavier compound to breathe than any Mr. Longdon had yet tasted. This heaviness had grown for him through the long sweet summer day, and there was something in his at last finding himself ensconced with the Duchess that made it supremely oppressive. The contact was one that, none the less, he would not have availed himself of a decent pretext to avoid. With so many fine mysteries playing about him there was relief, at the point he had reached, rather than alarm, in the thought of knowing the worst; which it pressed upon him somehow that the Duchess must not only altogether know but must in any relation quite naturally communicate. It fluttered him rather that a person who had an understanding with Lord Petherton should so single him out as to wish for one also with himself; such a person must either have great variety of mind or have a wonderful idea of HIS variety. It was true indeed that Mr. Mitchett must have the most extraordinary understanding, and yet with Mr. Mitchett he now found himself quite pleasantly at his ease. Their host, however, was a person sui generis, whom he had accepted, once for all, the inconsequence of liking in conformity with the need he occasionally felt to put it on record that he was not narrow-minded. Perhaps at bottom he most liked Mitchy because Mitchy most liked Nanda; there hung about him still moreover the faded fragrance of the superstition that hospitality not declined is one of the things that “oblige.” It obliged the thoughts, for Mr. Longdon, as well as the manners, and in the especial form in which he was now committed to it would have made him, had he really thought any ill, ask himself what the deuce then he was doing in the man’s house. All of which didn’t prevent some of Mitchy’s queer condonations — if condonations in fact they were — from not wholly, by themselves, soothing his vague unrest, an unrest which never had been so great as at the moment he heard the Duchess abruptly say to him: “Do you know my idea about Nanda? It’s my particular desire you should — the reason, really, why I’ve thus laid violent hands on you. Nanda, my dear man, should marry at the very first moment.”
This was more interesting than he had expected, and the effect produced by his interlocutress, as well as doubtless not lost on her, was shown in his suppressed start. “There has been no reason why I should attribute to you any judgement of the matter; but I’ve had one myself, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t say frankly that it’s very much the one you express. It would be a very good thing.”
“A very good thing, but none of my business?”— the Duchess’s vivacity was not unamiable.
It was on this circumstance that her companion for an instant perhaps meditated. “It’s probably not in my interest to say that. I should give you too easy a retort. It would strike any one as quite as much your business as mine.”
“Well, it ought to be somebody’s, you know. One would suppose it to be her mother’s — her father’s; but in this country the parents are even more emancipated than the children. Suppose, really, since it appears to be nobody’s affair, that you and I do make it ours. We needn’t either of us,” she continued, “be concerned for the other’s reasons, though I’m perfectly ready, I assure you, to put my cards on the table. You’ve your feelings — we know they’re beautiful. I, on my side, have mine — for which I don’t pretend anything but that they’re strong. They can dispense with being beautiful when they’re so perfectly settled. Besides, I may mention, they’re rather nice than otherwise. Edward and I have a cousinage, though for all he does to keep it up —! If he leaves his children to play in the street I take it seriously enough to make an occasional dash for them before they’re run over. And I want for Nanda simply the man she herself wants — it isn’t as if I wanted for her a dwarf or a hunchback or a coureur or a drunkard. Vanderbank’s a man whom any woman, don’t you think? might be-whom more than one woman IS— glad of for herself: beau comme le jour, awfully conceited and awfully patronising, but clever and successful and yet liked, and without, so far as I know, any of the terrific appendages which in this country so often diminish the value of even the pleasantest people. He hasn’t five horrible unmarried sisters for his wife to have always on a visit. The way your women don’t marry is the ruin here of society, and I’ve been assured in good quarters — though I don’t know so much about that — the ruin also of conversation and of literature. Isn’t it precisely just a little to keep Nanda herself from becoming that kind of appendage — say to poor Harold, say, one of these days, to her younger brother and sister — that friends like you and me feel the importance of bestirring ourselves in time? Of course she’s supposedly young, but she’s really any age you like: your London world so fearfully batters and bruises them.” She had gone fast and far, but it had given Mr. Longdon time to feel himself well afloat. There were so many things in it all to take up that he laid his hand — of which, he was not unconscious, the feebleness exposed him — on the nearest. “Why I’m sure her mother — after twenty years of it — is fresh enough.”
“Fresh? You find Mrs. Brook fresh?” The Duchess had a manner that, in its all-knowingness, rather humiliated than encouraged; but he was all the more resolute for being conscious of his own reserves. “It seems to me it’s fresh to look about thirty.”
“That indeed would be perfect. But she doesn’t — she looks about three. She simply looks a baby.”
“Oh Duchess, you’re really too particular!” he retorted, feeling that, as the trodden worm will turn, anxiety itself may sometimes tend to wit.
She met him in her own way. “I know what I mean. My niece is a person I call fresh. It’s warranted, as they say in the shops. Besides,” she went on, “if a married woman has been knocked about that’s only a part of her condition. Elle l’a lien voulu, and if you’re married you’re married; it’s the smoke — or call it the soot! — of the fire. You know, yourself,” she roundly pursued, “that Nanda’s situation appals you.”
“Oh ‘appals’!” he restrictively murmured.
It even tried a little his companion’s patience. “There you are, you English — you’ll never face your own music. It’s amazing what you’d rather do with a thing — anything not to shoot at or to make money with — than look at its meaning. If I wished to save the girl as YOU wish it I should know exactly from what. But why differ about reasons,” she asked, “when we’re at one about the fact? I don’t mention the greatest of Vanderbank’s merits,” she added —“his having so delicious a friend. By whom, let me hasten to assure you,” she laughed, “I don’t in the least mean Mrs. Brook! She IS delicious if you like, but believe me when I tell you, caro mio — if you need to be told — that for effective action on him you’re worth twenty of her.”
What was most visible in Mr. Longdon was that, however it came to him, he had rarely before, all at once, had so much given him to think about. Again the only way to manage was to take what came uppermost. “By effective action you mean action on the matter of his proposing for Nanda?”
The Duchess’s assent was noble. “You can make him propose — you can make, I mean, a sure thing of it. You can doter the bride.” Then as with the impulse to meet benevolently and more than halfway her companion’s imperfect apprehension: “You can settle on her something that will make her a parti.” His apprehension was perhaps imperfect, but it could still lead somehow to his flushing all over, and this demonstration the Duchess as quickly took into account. “Poor Edward, you know, won’t give her a penny.”
Decidedly she went fast, but Mr. Longdon in a moment had caught up. “Mr. Vanderbank — your idea is — would require on the part of his wife something of that sort?”
“Pray who wouldn’t — in the world we all move in-require it quite as much? Mr. Vanderbank, I’m assured, has no means of his own at all, and if he doesn’t believe in impecunious marriages it’s not I who shall be shocked at him. For myself I simply despise them. He has nothing but a poor official salary. If it’s enough for one it would be little for two, and would be still less for half a dozen. They’re just the people to have, that blessed pair, a fine old English family.”
Mr. Longdon was now fairly abreast of it. “What it comes to then, the idea you’re so good as to put before me, is to bribe him to take her.”
The Duchess remained bland, but she fixed him. “You say that as if you were scandalised, but if you try Mr. Van with it I don’t think he’ll be. And you won’t persuade me,” she went on finely, “that you haven’t yourself thought of it.” She kept her eyes on him, and the effect of them, soon enough visible in his face, was such as presently to make her exult at her felicity. “You’re of a limpidity, dear man — you’ve only to be said ‘bo!’ to and you confess. Consciously or unconsciously — the former, really, I’m inclined to think — you’ve wanted him for her.” She paused an instant to enjoy her triumph, after which she continued: “And you’ve wanted her for him. I make you out, you’ll say — for I see you coming — one of those horrible benevolent busy-bodies who are the worst of the class, but you’ve only to think a little — if I may go so far — to see that no ‘making’ at all is required. You’ve only one link with the Brooks, but that link is golden. How can we, all of us, by this time, not have grasped and admired the beauty of your feeling for Lady Julia? There it is — I make you wince: to speak of it is to profane it. Let us by all means not speak of it then, but let us act on it.” He had at last turned his face from her, and it now took in, from the vantage of his high position, only the loveliness of the place and the hour, which included a glimpse of Lord Petherton and little Aggie, who, down in the garden, slowly strolled in familiar union. Each had a hand in the other’s, swinging easily as they went; their talk was evidently of flowers and fruits and birds; it was quite like father and daughter. One could see half a mile off in short that THEY weren’t flirting. Our friend’s bewilderment came in odd cold gusts: these were unreasoned and capricious; one of them, at all events, during his companion’s pause, must have roared in his ears. Was it not therefore through some continuance of the sound that he heard her go on speaking? “Of course you know the poor child’s own condition.”
It took him a good while to answer. “Do YOU know it?” he asked with his eyes still away.
“If your question’s ironical,” she laughed, “your irony’s perfectly wasted. I should be ashamed of myself if, with my relationship and my interest, I hadn’t made sure. Nanda’s fairly sick — as sick as a little cat — with her passion.” It was with an intensity of silence that he appeared to accept this; he was even so dumb for a minute that the oddity of the image could draw from him no natural sound. The Duchess once more, accordingly, recognised an occasion. “It has doubtless already occurred to you that, since your sentiment for the living is the charming fruit of your sentiment for the dead, there would be a sacrifice to Lady Julia’s memory more exquisite than any other.”
At this finally Mr. Longdon turned. “The effort — on the lines you speak of — for Nanda’s happiness?”
She fairly glowed with hope. “And by the same token such a piece of poetic justice! Quite the loveliest it would be, I think, one had ever heard of.”
So, for some time more, they sat confronted. “I don’t quite see your difficulty,” he said at last. “I do happen to know, I confess, that Nanda herself extremely desires the execution of your project.”
His friend’s smile betrayed no surprise at this effect of her eloquence. “You’re bad at dodging. Nanda’s desire is inevitably to stop off for herself every question of any one but Vanderbank. If she wants me to succeed in arranging with Mr. Mitchett can you ask for a plainer sign of her private predicament? But you’ve signs enough, I see”— she caught herself up: “we may take them all for granted. I’ve known perfectly from the first that the only difficulty would come from her mother — but also that that would be stiff.”
The movement with which Mr. Longdon removed his glasses might have denoted a certain fear to participate in too much of what the Duchess had known. “I’ve not been ignorant that Mrs. Brookenham favours Mr. Mitchett.”
But he was not to be let off with that. “Then you’ve not been blind, I suppose, to her reason for doing so.” He might not have been blind, but his vision, at this, scarce showed sharpness, and it determined in his interlocutress the shortest of short cuts. “She favours Mr. Mitchett because she wants ‘old Van’ herself.”
He was evidently conscious of looking at her hard. “In what sense — herself?”
“Ah you must supply the sense; I can give you only the fact — and it’s the fact that concerns us. Voyons” she almost impatiently broke out; “don’t try to create unnecessary obscurities by being unnecessarily modest. Besides, I’m not touching your modesty. Supply any sense whatever that may miraculously satisfy your fond English imagination: I don’t insist in the least on a bad one. She does want him herself — that’s all I say. ‘Pourquoi faires’ you ask — or rather, being too shy, don’t ask, but would like to if you dared or didn’t fear I’d be shocked. I CAN’T be shocked, but frankly I can’t tell you either. The situation belongs, I think, to an order I don’t understand. I understand either one thing or the other — I understand taking a man up or letting him alone. But I don’t really get at Mrs. Brook. You must judge at any rate for yourself. Vanderbank could of course tell you if he would — but it wouldn’t be right that he should. So the one thing we have to do with is that she’s in fact against us. I can only work Mitchy through Petherton, but Mrs. Brook can work him straight. On the other hand that’s the way you, my dear man, can work Vanderbank.”
One thing evidently beyond the rest, as a result of this vivid demonstration, disengaged itself to our old friend’s undismayed sense, but his consternation needed a minute or two to produce it. “I can absolutely assure you that Mr. Vanderbank entertains no sentiment for Mrs. Brookenham —!”
“That he may not keep under by just setting his teeth and holding on? I never dreamed he does, and have nothing so alarming in store for you — rassurez-vous bien! — as to propose that he shall be invited to sink a feeling for the mother in order to take one up for the child. Don’t, please, flutter out of the whole question by a premature scare. I never supposed it’s he who wants to keep HER. He’s not in love with her — be comforted! But she’s amusing — highly amusing. I do her perfect justice. As your women go she’s rare. If she were French she’d be a femme d’esprit. She has invented a nuance of her own and she has done it all by herself, for Edward figures in her drawing-room only as one of those queer extinguishers of fire in the corridors of hotels. He’s just a bucket on a peg. The men, the young and the clever ones, find it a house — and heaven knows they’re right — with intellectual elbow-room, with freedom of talk. Most English talk is a quadrille in a sentry-box. You’ll tell me we go further in Italy, and I won’t deny it, but in Italy we have the common sense not to have little girls in the room. The young men hang about Mrs. Brook, and the clever ones ply her with the uproarious appreciation that keeps her up to the mark. She’s in a prodigious fix — she must sacrifice either her daughter or what she once called to me her intellectual habits. Mr. Vanderbank, you’ve seen for yourself, is of these one of the most cherished, the most confirmed. Three months ago — it couldn’t be any longer kept off — Nanda began definitely to ‘sit’; to be there and look, by the tea-table, modestly and conveniently abstracted.”
“I beg your pardon — I don’t think she looks that, Duchess,” Mr. Longdon lucidly broke in. How much she had carried him with her in spite of himself was betrayed by the very terms of his dissent. “I don’t think it would strike any one that she looks ‘convenient.’”
His companion, laughing, gave a shrug. “Try her and perhaps you’ll find her so!” But his objection had none the less pulled her up a little. “I don’t say she’s a hypocrite, for it would certainly be less decent for her to giggle and wink. It’s Mrs. Brook’s theory moreover, isn’t it? that she has, from five to seven at least, lowered the pitch. Doesn’t she pretend that she bears in mind every moment the tiresome difference made by the presence of sweet virginal eighteen?”
“I haven’t, I’m afraid, a notion of what she pretends!”
Mr. Longdon had spoken with a curtness to which his friend’s particular manner of overlooking it only added significance. “They’ve become,” she pursued, “superficial or insincere or frivolous, but at least they’ve become, with the way the drag’s put on, quite as dull as other people.”
He showed no sign of taking this up; instead of it he said abruptly: “But if it isn’t Mr. Mitchett’s own idea?”
His fellow visitor barely hesitated. “It would be his own if he were free — and it would be Lord Petherton’s FOR him. I mean by his being free Nanda’s becoming definitely lost to him. Then it would be impossible for Mrs. Brook to continue to persuade him, as she does now, that by a waiting game he’ll come to his chance. His chance will cease to exist, and he wants so, poor darling, to marry. You’ve really now seen my niece,” she went on. “That’s another reason why I hold you can help me.”
“Yes — I’ve seen her.”
“Well, there she is.” It was as if in the pause that followed this they sat looking at little absent Aggie with a wonder that was almost equal. “The good God has given her to me,” the Duchess said at last.
“It seems to me then that she herself is, in her remarkable loveliness, really your help.”
“She’ll be doubly so if you give me proofs that you believe in her.” And the Duchess, appearing to consider that with this she had made herself clear and her interlocutor plastic, rose in confident majesty. “I leave it to you.”
Mr. Longdon did the same, but with more consideration now. “Is it your expectation that I shall speak to Mr. Mitchett?”
“Don’t flatter yourself he won’t speak to YOU!”
Mr. Longdon made it out. “As supposing me, you mean, an interested party?”
She clapped her gloved hands for joy. “It’s a delight to hear you practically admit that you ARE one! Mr. Mitchett will take anything from you — above all perfect candour. It isn’t every day one meets YOUR kind, and he’s a connoisseur. I leave it to you — I leave it to you.”
She spoke as if it were something she had thrust bodily into his hands and wished to hurry away from. He put his hands behind him — straightening himself a little, half-kindled, still half-confused. “You’re all extraordinary people!”
She gave a toss of her head that showed her as not so dazzled. “You’re the best of us, caro mio — you and Aggie: for Aggie’s as good as you. Mitchy’s good too, however — Mitchy’s beautiful. You see it’s not only his money. He’s a gentleman. So are you. There aren’t so many. But we must move fast,” she added more sharply.
“What do you mean by fast?”
“What should I mean but what I say? If Nanda doesn’t get a husband early in the business —”
“Well?” said Mr. Longdon, as she appeared to pause with the weight of her idea.
“Why she won’t get one late — she won’t get one at all. One, I mean, of the kind she’ll take. She’ll have been in it over-long for THEIR taste.”
She had moved, looking off and about her — little Aggie always on her mind — to the flight of steps, where she again hung fire; and had really ended by producing in him the manner of keeping up with her to challenge her. “Been in what?”
She went down a few steps while he stood with his face full of perceptions strained and scattered. “Why in the air they themselves have infected for her!”
Late that night, in the smoking room, when the smokers — talkers and listeners alike — were about to disperse, Mr. Longdon asked Vanderbank to stay, and then it was that the young man, to whom all the evening he had not addressed a word, could make out why, a little unnaturally, he had prolonged his vigil. “I’ve something particular to say to you and I’ve been waiting. I hope you don’t mind. It’s rather important.” Vanderbank expressed on the spot the liveliest desire to oblige him and, quickly lighting another cigarette, mounted again to the deep divan with which a part of the place was furnished. The smoking-room at Mertle was not unworthy of the general nobleness, and the fastidious spectator had clearly been reckoned on in the great leather-covered lounge that, raised by a step or two above the floor, applied its back to two quarters of the wall and enjoyed most immediately a view of the billiard-table. Mr. Longdon continued for a minute to roam with the air of dissimulated absence that, during the previous hour and among the other men, his companion’s eye had not lost; he pushed a ball or two about, examined the form of an ash-stand, swung his glasses almost with violence and declined either to smoke or to sit down. Vanderbank, perched aloft on the bench and awaiting developments, had a little the look of some prepossessing criminal who, in court, should have changed places with the judge. He was unlike many a man of marked good looks in that the effect of evening dress was not, with a perversity often observed in such cases, to over-emphasise his fineness. His type was rather chastened than heightened, and he sat there moreover with a primary discretion quite in the note of the deference that from the first, with his friend of the elder fashion, he had taken as imposed. He had a strong sense for shades of respect and was now careful to loll scarcely more than with an official superior. “If you ask me,” Mr. Longdon presently continued, “why at this hour of the night — after a day at best too heterogeneous — I don’t keep over till tomorrow whatever I may have to say, I can only tell you that I appeal to you now because I’ve something on my mind that I shall sleep the better for being rid of.”
There was space to circulate in front of the haut-pas, where he had still paced and still swung his glasses; but with these words he had paused, leaning against the billiard-table, to meet the interested urbanity of the answer they produced. “Are you very sure that having got rid of it you WILL sleep? Is it a pure confidence,” Vanderbank said, “that you do me the honour to make me? Is it something terrific that requires a reply, so that I shall have to take account on my side of the rest I may deprive you of?”
“Don’t take account of anything — I’m myself a man who always takes too much. It isn’t a matter about which I press you for an immediate answer. You can give me no answer probably without a good deal of thought. I’VE thought a good deal — otherwise I wouldn’t speak. I only want to put something before you and leave it there.”
“I never see you,” said Vanderbank, “that you don’t put something before me.”
“That sounds,” his friend returned, “as if I rather overloaded — what’s the sort of thing you fellows nowadays say? — your intellectual board. If there’s a congestion of dishes sweep everything without scruple away. I’ve never put before you anything like this.”
He spoke with a weight that in the great space, where it resounded a little, made an impression — an impression marked by the momentary pause that fell between them. He partly broke the silence first by beginning to walk again, and then Vanderbank broke it as through the apprehension of their becoming perhaps too solemn. “Well, you immensely interest me and you really couldn’t have chosen a better time. A secret — for we shall make it that of course, shan’t we? — at this witching hour, in this great old house, is all my visit here will have required to make the whole thing a rare remembrance. So I assure you the more you put before me the better.”
Mr. Longdon took up another ash-tray, but with the air of doing so as a direct consequence of Vanderbank’s tone. After he had laid it down he put on his glasses; then fixing his companion he brought out: “Have you no idea at all —?”
“Of what you have in your head? Dear Mr. Longdon, how SHOULD I have?”
“Well, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t perhaps have a little in your place. There’s nothing that in the circumstances occurs to you as likely I should want to say?”
Vanderbank gave a laugh that might have struck an auditor as a trifle uneasy. “When you speak of ‘the circumstances’ you do a thing that — unless you mean the simple thrilling ones of this particular moment — always of course opens the door of the lurid for a man of any imagination. To such a man you’ve only to give a nudge for his conscience to jump. That’s at any rate the case with mine. It’s never quite on its feet — so it’s now already on its back.” He stopped a little — his smile was even strained. “Is what you want to put before me something awful I’ve done?”
“Excuse me if I press this point.” Mr. Longdon spoke kindly, but if his friend’s anxiety grew his own thereby diminished. “Can you think of nothing at all?”
“Do you mean that I’ve done?”
“No, but that — whether you’ve done it or not — I may have become aware of.”
There could have been no better proof than Vanderbank’s expression, on this, of his having mastered the secret of humouring without appearing to patronise. “I think you ought to give me a little more of a clue.”
Mr. Longdon took off his glasses. “Well — the clue’s Nanda Brookenham.”
“Oh I see.” His friend had responded quickly, but for a minute said nothing more, and the great marble clock that gave the place the air of a club ticked louder in the stillness. Mr. Longdon waited with a benevolent want of mercy, yet with a look in his face that spoke of what depended for him — though indeed very far within — on the upshot of his patience. The hush between them, for that matter, became a conscious public measure of the young man’s honesty. He evidently at last felt it as such, and there would have been for an observer of his handsome controlled face a study of some sharp things. “I judge that you ask me for such an utterance,” he finally said, “as very few persons at any time have the right to expect of a man. Think of the people — and very decent ones — to whom on so many a question one must only reply that it’s none of their business.”
“I see you know what I mean,” said Mr. Longdon.
“Then you know also the distinguished exception I make of you. There isn’t another man with whom I’d talk of it.”
“And even to me you don’t! But I’m none the less obliged to you,” Mr. Longdon added.
“It isn’t only the gravity,” his companion went on; “it’s the ridicule that inevitably attaches —!”
The manner in which Mr. Longdon indicated the empty room was in itself an interruption. “Don’t I sufficiently spare you?”
“Thank you, thank you,” said Vanderbank.
“Besides, it’s not for nothing.”
“Of course not!” the young man returned, though with a look of noting the next moment a certain awkwardness in his concurrence. “But don’t spare me now.”
“I don’t mean to.” Mr. Longdon had his back to the table again, on which he rested with each hand on the rim. “I don’t mean to,” he repeated.
His victim gave a laugh that betrayed at least the drop of a tension. “Yet I don’t quite see what you can do to me.”
“It’s just what for some time past I’ve been trying to think.”
“And at last you’ve discovered?”
“Well — it has finally glimmered out a little in this extraordinary place.”
Vanderbank frankly wondered. “In consequence of anything particular that has happened?”
Mr. Longdon had a pause. “For an old idiot who notices as much as I something particular’s always happening. If you’re a man of imagination —”
“Oh,” Vanderbank broke in, “I know how much more in that case you’re one! It only makes me regret,” he continued, “that I’ve not attended more since yesterday to what you’ve been about.”
“I’ve been about nothing but what among you people I’m always about. I’ve been seeing, feeling, thinking. That makes no show, of course I’m aware, for any one but myself, and it’s wholly my own affair. Except indeed,” he added, “so far as I’ve taken into my head to make, on it all, this special appeal. There are things that have come home to me.”
“Oh I see, I see,” Vanderbank showed the friendliest alertness. “I’m to take it from you then, with all the avidity of my vanity, that I strike you as the person best able to understand what they are.”
Mr. Longdon appeared to wonder an instant if his intelligence now had not almost too much of a glitter: he kept the same position, his back against the table, and while Vanderbank, on the settee, pressed upright against the wall, they recognised in silence that they were trying each other. “You’re much the best of them. I’ve my ideas about you. You’ve great gifts.”
“Well then, we’re worthy of each other. When Greek meets Greek —!” and the young man laughed while, a little with the air of bracing himself, he folded his arms. “Here we are.”
His companion looked at him a moment longer, then, turning away, went slowly round the table. On the further side of it he stopped again and, after a minute, with a nervous movement, set a ball or two in motion. “It’s beautiful — but it’s terrible!” he finally murmured. He hadn’t his eyes on Vanderbank, who for a minute said nothing, and he presently went on: “To see it and not to want to try to help — well, I can’t do that.” Vanderbank, still neither speaking nor moving, remained as if he might interrupt something of high importance, and his friend, passing along the opposite edge of the table, continued to produce in the stillness, without the cue, the small click of the ivory. “How long — if you don’t mind my asking — have you known it?”
Even for this at first Vanderbank had no answer — none but to rise from his place, come down to the floor and, standing there, look at Mr. Longdon across the table. He was serious now, but without being solemn. “How can one tell? One can never be sure. A man may fancy, may wonder; but about a girl, a person so much younger than himself and so much more helpless, he feels a — what shall I call it?”
“A delicacy?” Mr. Longdon suggested. “It may be that; the name doesn’t matter; at all events he’s embarrassed. He wants not to be an ass on the one side and yet not some other kind of brute on the other.”
Mr. Longdon listened with consideration — with a beautiful little air indeed of being, in his all but finally benighted state, earnestly open to information on such points from a magnificent young man. “He doesn’t want, you mean, to be a coxcomb? — and he doesn’t want to be cruel?”
Vanderbank, visibly preoccupied, produced a faint kind smile. “Oh you KNOW!”
“I? I should know less than any one.” Mr. Longdon had turned away from the table on this, and the eyes of his companion, who after an instant had caught his meaning, watched him move along the room and approach another part of the divan. The consequence of the passage was that Vanderbank’s only rejoinder was presently to say: “I can’t tell you how long I’ve imagined — have asked myself. She’s so charming, so interesting, and I feel as if I had known her always. I’ve thought of one thing and another to do — and then, on purpose, haven’t thought at all. That has mostly seemed to me best.”
“Then I gather,” said Mr. Longdon, “that your interest in her —?”
“Hasn’t the same character as her interest in ME?” Vanderbank had taken him up responsively, but after speaking looked about for a match and lighted a new cigarette. “I’m sure you understand,” he broke out, “what an extreme effort it is to me to talk of such things!”
“Yes, yes. But it’s just effort only? It gives you no pleasure? I mean the fact of her condition,” Mr. Longdon explained.
Vanderbank had really to think a little. “However much it might give me I should probably not be a fellow to gush. I’m a self-conscious stick of a Briton.”
“But even a stick of a Briton —!” Mr. Longdon faltered and hovered. “I’ve gushed in short to YOU.”
“About Lady Julia?” the young man frankly asked. “Is gushing what you call what you’ve done?”
“Say then we’re sticks of Britons. You’re not in any degree at all in love?”
There fell between them, before Vanderbank replied, another pause, of which he took advantage to move once more round the table. Mr. Longdon meanwhile had mounted to the high bench and sat there as if the judge were now in his proper place. At last his companion spoke. “What you’re coming to is of course that you’ve conceived a desire.”
“That’s it — strange as it may seem. But believe me, it has not been precipitate. I’ve watched you both.”
“Oh I knew you were watching HER,” said Vanderbank.
“To such a tune that I’ve made up my mind. I want her so to marry —!” But on the odd little quaver of longing with which he brought it out the elder man fairly hung.
“Well?” said Vanderbank.
“Well, so that on the day she does she’ll come into the interest of a considerable sum of money — already very decently invested — that I’ve determined to settle on her.”
Vanderbank’s instant admiration flushed across the room. “How awfully jolly of you — how beautiful!”
“Oh there’s a way to show practically your appreciation of it.”
But Vanderbank, for enthusiasm, scarcely heard him. “I can’t tell you how admirable I think you.” Then eagerly, “Does Nanda know it?” he demanded.
Mr. Longdon, after a wait, spoke with comparative dryness. “My idea has been that for the present you alone shall.”
Vanderbank took it in. “No other man?”
His companion looked still graver. “I need scarcely say that I depend on you to keep the fact to yourself.”
“Absolutely then and utterly. But that won’t prevent what I think of it. Nothing for a long time has given me such joy.”
Shining and sincere, he had held for a minute Mr. Longdon’s eyes. “Then you do care for her?”
“Immensely. Never, I think, so much as now. That sounds of a grossness, doesn’t it?” the young man laughed. “But your announcement really lights up the mind.”
His friend for a moment almost glowed with his pleasure. “The sum I’ve fixed upon would be, I may mention, substantial, and I should of course be prepared with a clear statement — a very definite pledge — of my intentions.”
“So much the better! Only”— Vanderbank suddenly pulled himself up —“to get it she MUST marry?”
“It’s not in my interest to allow you to suppose she needn’t, and it’s only because of my intensely wanting her marriage that I’ve spoken to you.”
“And on the ground also with it”— Vanderbank so far concurred —“of your quite taking for granted my only having to put myself forward?”
If his friend seemed to cast about it proved but to be for the fullest expression. Nothing in fact could have been more charged than the quiet way in which he presently said: “My dear boy, I back you.”
Vanderbank clearly was touched by it. “How extraordinarily kind you are to me!” Mr. Longdon’s silence appeared to reply that he was willing to let it go for that, and the young man next went on: “What it comes to then — as you put it — is that it’s a way for me to add something handsome to my income.”
Mr. Longdon sat for a little with his eyes attached to the green field of the billiard-table, vivid in the spreading suspended lamplight. “I think I ought to tell you the figure I have in mind.”
Another person present might have felt rather taxed either to determine the degree of provocation represented by Vanderbank’s considerate smile, or to say if there was an appreciable interval before he rang out: “I think, you know, you oughtn’t to do anything of the sort. Let that alone, please. The great thing is the interest — the great thing is the wish you express. It represents a view of me, an attitude toward me —!” He pulled up, dropping his arms and turning away before the complete image.
“There’s nothing in those things that need overwhelm you. It would be odd if you hadn’t yourself, about your value and your future a feeling quite as lively as any feeling of mine. There IS mine at all events. I can’t help it. Accept it. Then of the other feeling — how SHE moves me — I won’t speak.”
“You sufficiently show it!”
Mr. Longdon continued to watch the bright circle on the table, lost in which a moment he let his friend’s answer pass. “I won’t begin to you on Nanda.”
“Don’t,” said Vanderbank. But in the pause that ensued each, in one way or another, might have been thinking of her for himself.
It was broken by Mr. Longdon’s presently going on: “Of course what it superficially has the air of is my offering to pay you for taking a certain step. It’s open to you to be grand and proud — to wrap yourself in your majesty and ask if I suppose you bribeable. I haven’t spoken without having thought of that.”
“Yes,” said Vanderbank all responsively, “but it isn’t as if you proposed to me, is it, anything dreadful? If one cares for a girl one’s deucedly glad she has money. The more of anything good she has the better. I may assure you,” he added with the brightness of his friendly intelligence and quite as if to show his companion the way to be least concerned —“I may assure you that once I were disposed to act on your suggestion I’d make short work of any vulgar interpretation of my motive. I should simply try to be as fine as yourself.” He smoked, he moved about, then came up in another place. “I dare say you know that dear old Mitchy, under whose blessed roof we’re plotting this midnight treason, would marry her like a shot and without a penny.”
“I think I know everything — I think I’ve thought of everything. Mr. Mitchett,” Mr. Longdon added, “is impossible.”
Vanderbank appeared for an instant to wonder. “Wholly then through HER attitude?”
Again he hesitated. “You’ve asked her?”
“I’ve asked her.”
Once more Vanderbank faltered. “And that’s how you know?”
“About YOUR chance? That’s how I know.”
The young man, consuming his cigarette with concentration, took again several turns. “And your idea IS to give one time?”
Mr. Longdon had for a minute to turn his idea over. “How much time do you want?”
Vanderbank gave a headshake that was both restrictive and indulgent. “I must live into it a little. Your offer has been before me only these few minutes, and it’s too soon for me to commit myself to anything whatever. Except,” he added gallantly, “to my gratitude.”
Mr. Longdon, at this, on the divan, got up, as Vanderbank had previously done, under the spring of emotion; only, unlike Vanderbank, he still stood there, his hands in his pockets and his face, a little paler, directed straight. There was disappointment in him even before he spoke. “You’ve no strong enough impulse —?”
His friend met him with admirable candour. “Wouldn’t it seem that if I had I would by this time have taken the jump?”
“Without waiting, you mean, for anybody’s money?” Mr. Longdon cultivated for a little a doubt. “Of course she has struck one as — till now — tremendously young.”
Vanderbank looked about once more for matches and occupied a time with relighting. “Till now — yes. But it’s not,” he pursued, “only because she’s so young that — for each of us, and for dear old Mitchy too — she’s so interesting.” Mr. Longdon had restlessly stepped down, and Vanderbank’s eyes followed him till he stopped again. “I make out that in spite of what you said to begin with you’re conscious of a certain pressure.”
“In the matter of time? Oh yes, I do want it DONE. That,” Nanda’s patron simply explained, “is why I myself put on the screw.” He spoke with the ring of impatience. “I want her got out.”
“Out of her mother’s house.”
Vanderbank laughed though — more immediately — he had coloured. “Why, her mother’s house is just where I see her!”
“Precisely; and if it only weren’t we might get on faster.”
Vanderbank, for all his kindness, looked still more amused. “But if it only weren’t, as you say, I seem to understand you wouldn’t have your particular vision of urgency.”
Mr. Longdon, through adjusted glasses, took him in with a look that was sad as well as sharp, then jerked the glasses off. “Oh you do understand.”
“Ah,” said Vanderbank, “I’m a mass of corruption!”
“You may perfectly be, but you shall not,” Mr. Longdon returned with decision, “get off on any such plea. If you’re good enough for me you’re good enough, as you thoroughly know, on whatever head, for any one.”
“Thank you.” But Vanderbank, for all his happy appreciation, thought again. “We ought at any rate to remember, oughtn’t we? that we should have Mrs. Brook against us.”
His companion faltered but an instant. “Ah that’s another thing I know. But it’s also exactly why. Why I want Nanda away.”
“I see, I see.”
The response had been prompt, yet Mr. Longdon seemed suddenly to show that he suspected the superficial. “Unless it’s with Mrs. Brook you’re in love.” Then on his friend’s taking the idea with a mere headshake of negation, a repudiation that might even have astonished by its own lack of surprise, “Or unless Mrs. Brook’s in love with you,” he amended.
Vanderbank had for this any decent gaiety. “Ah that of course may perfectly be!”
“But IS it? That’s the question.”
He continued light. “If she had declared her passion shouldn’t I rather compromise her —?”
“By letting me know?” Mr. Longdon reflected. “I’m sure I can’t say — it’s a sort of thing for which I haven’t a measure or a precedent. In my time women didn’t declare their passion. I’m thinking of what the meaning is of Mrs. Brookenham’s wanting you — as I’ve heard it called — herself.”
Vanderbank, still with his smile, smoked a minute. “That’s what you’ve heard it called?”
“Yes, but you must excuse me from telling you by whom.”
He was amused at his friend’s discretion. “It’s unimaginable. But it doesn’t matter. We all call everything — anything. The meaning of it, if you and I put it so, is — well, a modern shade.”
“You must deal then yourself,” said Mr. Longdon, “with your modern shades.” He spoke now as if the case simply awaited such dealing.
But at this his young friend was more grave. “YOU could do nothing? — to bring, I mean, Mrs. Brook round.”
Mr. Longdon fairly started. “Propose on your behalf for her daughter? With your authority — tomorrow. Authorise me and I instantly act.”
Vanderbank’s colour again rose — his flush was complete. “How awfully you want it!”
Mr. Longdon, after a look at him, turned away. “How awfully YOU don’t!”
The young man continued to blush. “No — you must do me justice. You’ve not made a mistake about me — I see in your proposal, I think, all you can desire I should. Only YOU see it much more simply — and yet I can’t just now explain. If it WERE so simple I should say to you in a moment ‘do speak to them for me’— I should leave the matter with delight in your hands. But I require time, let me remind you, and you haven’t yet told me how much I may take.”
This appeal had brought them again face to face, and Mr. Longdon’s first reply to it was a look at his watch. “It’s one o’clock.”
“Oh I require”— Vanderbank had recovered his pleasant humour —“more than to-night!”
Mr. Longdon went off to the smaller table that still offered to view two bedroom candles. “You must take of course the time you need. I won’t trouble you — I won’t hurry you. I’m going to bed.”
Vanderbank, overtaking him, lighted his candle for him; after which, handing it and smiling: “Shall we have conduced to your rest?”
Mr. Longdon looked at the other candle. “You’re not coming to bed?”
“To MY rest we shall not have conduced. I stay up a while longer.”
“Good.” Mr. Longdon was pleased. “You won’t forget then, as we promised, to put out the lights?”
“If you trust me for the greater you can trust me for the less. Good-night.”
Vanderbank had offered his hand. “Good-night.” But Mr. Longdon kept him a moment. “You DON’T care for my figure?”
“Not yet — not yet. PLEASE.” Vanderbank seemed really to fear it, but on Mr. Longdon’s releasing him with a little drop of disappointment they went together to the door of the room, where they had another pause.
“She’s to come down to me — alone — in September.”
Vanderbank appeared to debate and conclude. “Then may I come?”
His friend, on this footing, had to consider. “Shall you know by that time?”
“I’m afraid I can’t promise — if you must regard my coming as a pledge.”
Mr. Longdon thought on; then raising his eyes: “I don’t quite see why you won’t suffer me to tell you —!”
“The detail of your intention? I do then. You’ve said quite enough. If my visit must commit me,” Vanderbank pursued, “I’m afraid I can’t come.”
Mr. Longdon, who had passed into the corridor, gave a dry sad little laugh. “Come then — as the ladies say —‘as you are’!”
On which, rather softly closing the door, the young man remained alone in the great emptily lighted billiard-room.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:10